Claiming an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) isn't meant to condemn you to a life lived in limbo. There is still a window of opportunity that exists for generating additional income. You are allowed to do certain types of work, and to do so within certain limits. This is termed “Permitted Work”, and allows you to find out whether you are capable of doing specific jobs – maybe even to gain new skills. There are, however, strict rules about what type of work you can do, and how many hours you can work. You may also have to pay income tax on your earnings.
Because employers won't necessarily understand what Permitted Work is, or whether that is what they're offering you - you'll need to take responsibility for understanding what the Permitted Work rules are. Some of them are discussed below.
Generally, if you're receiving an ESA because you have a disability or an illness, you won't be allowed to work. In every case, if the work you want to do IS permitted under the rules, you don't need to ask permission to do it. But, if you're not completely certain and want to make sure that you are working within the rules (and not risking your benefit), you can always discuss the issue with your Jobcentre Plus personal adviser.
If what you're doing is permitted within the rules, you also don't need approval from your doctor or have to have another medical assessment. Of course, if a medical assessment is due anyway as part of the normal benefits review process, then that assessment will go ahead as originally planned.
Some of the Permitted Work rules mean that you can work if you earn £20 or less during a week for whatever work you do. This rule is true for as long as you're receiving an ESA. You are also allowed to take on a job if you'll work less than 16 hours per week for a weekly income of £97.50 or less. This figure is your income averaged out over a 52 week year.
Even if you're claiming ESA for illness or disability, you can do Supported Permitted Work and earn up to £97.50 per week for as long as you're receiving an ESA. Supported Permitted Work is defined as work that is supervised by a person who is employed by a public or local council, or for a voluntary organisation, and specifically tasked with arranging work for disabled people. Most often, this kind of work is done in the community, or in a sheltered workshop. It can also include work that's done as part of a hospital treatment programme.
When you're earning money by doing Permitted Work, you may have to pay tax on this extra income. You have to inform HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) as soon as you do start this kind of work. Remember that failing to report your income to HMRC may be viewed as tax evasion, for which a range of penalties exists. You can ask your Jobcentre Plus personal adviser for guidance on this issue.
You should also be clear on whether this income affects any other benefits you might qualify for. For instance, if you get a Council Tax Benefit or Housing Benefit, and choose to take on Permitted Work – any money you earn over the £20 a week threshold might have an impact on decisions when these benefits are being assessed.